The Enlightenment (1687-1789) was one factor that paved the way for the abolition of slavery. According to Lamm and Cross (1993) in The Humanities in Western Culture, this remarkable period ‘was a self-conscious and extremely articulate movement that was to transform all Western societies. It had its roots in France and England, but its branches extended throughout Europe and into the New World.’ People started to question the Church as well as the status quo. Franklin Knight in “The Disintegration of the Caribbean Slave Systems, 1772-1886”notes that during the Enlightenment the writings and ideas of number of ‘exceptionally articulate international scholars’ like Jean Jacque Rousseau (1712-78) and Adam Smith (1723-90) ‘had a veritable revolutionary impact on the general consciousness of Europeans and Americans....Within the metropolitan societies serious questions arose about the moral, religious and economic justifications for the institution [of slavery].…During the eighteenth century slave sympathizers began to exert some powerful pressures locally on the social, political and economic systems’.
Knight insists that the ‘both the slave trade and slavery in the colonies began with the challenges on moral and legal grounds in the various metropolises. In this respect the Enlightenment was extremely important in creating the necessary pre-conditions for attacking the institution of slavery.’ In his article Knight captures the change that was occurring during this eccentric era. He quotes from historian David Brion Davis: ‘What was unprecedented by the 1760s and 1770s was the emergence of a widespread conviction that New World slavery symbolized all the forces that threatened the true destiny of man.’
Another factor that led to the abolition of slavery was the untiring efforts of a number of humanitarians such as Sharpe, Clarkson and Wilberforce.
1. Sharp and Somerset case: Knight says Granville Sharp (1735-1813) was widely recognized of the father of the British anti-slavery movement. He took up the case of the detained slave, James Somerset. Having been brought from Jamaica by his master, Somerset was being held on a boat to be returned to the island when Sharp sought his release. Knight states: ‘In reluctantly ruling in favour of the slave, the celebrated but misunderstood verdict of Lord Chief Justice William Murray Mansfield (1705-93) on 22 June, 1772 established a precedent for the total legal abolition of slavery in England.’ Justice Mansfield described slavery as extremely ‘odious’. According to Knight, the Mansfield judgment revoked previous legal decisions which supported the opinion that a slave who comes from the West Indies with or without his master to Britain or Ireland does not become free.
Importance of the Judgement: Knight posits that at ‘the time of the Mansfield ruling, colonial planters had approximately 15 000 slaves in England, valued at £700 000 sterling. Mansfield’s judgement was a landmark decision simply because it allowed Sharp and other abolitionists in England to attack slaveholding on new legal grounds. They would also extend their arguments much further, suggesting that by countenancing slavery in the colonies frightful retribution would befall England.’ 2. Quakers: The Quakers also aided in getting rid of slavery. As Knight states: ‘Many bishops throughout England were mobilized by Sharp, and by Anthony Benezet, a prominent North American Quaker who wrote persuasively against the evils of enslavement without suggesting that slavery was totally contrary to divine law since it was sanctioned in the Bible. By the 1760s the Quakers as a group were beginning to oppose the slave trade. During the early 1770s a number of British North American colonies began to curtail the slave trade, even as they fought to establish their collective political independence. In 1776 the Second Continental Congress of the United States...
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